There has been an ongoing battle, certainly more pronounced in prior years, between the idea of a “personal computer” and whether that same piece of hardware really should be controlled by IT. One of the reasons that we’ve had the spread of viruses, the unreliability we’ve gotten used to, and much of the support problem we’ve all complained about is that users, including ourselves, tend to screw up our PCs. This is particularly pronounced with kids, who tend to find new and creative ways to destroy their own machines and those they borrow.
I’m at a launch event today where Microsoft is bringing out its response to Google Chromebooks, Windows 10 S, and it’s leading with a strategy that arguably takes the “personal” out of PCs. It is a very considered move because teachers don’t have the time to teach and undo the kind of damage kids can do to PCs. The overall effort for schools is focused tightly on creating a set of tools that reduces the time an educator spends on the technology so they can focus more on teaching.
This same thinking could eventually be adopted by companies because it isn’t just kids who have problems with corrupted and unsecure hardware. But this goes beyond the hardware and to the concept of creating tools focused on the needs of a unique group of customers, and this industry does this far too infrequently. In short, I think this could be a template for advancement that extends beyond education and into business in general.
Let’s talk about what Windows 10 S could mean for the future.
Part of the issue with most companies that target a segment is that, initially, the efforts seem to be focused almost exclusively on getting folks to buy the offering and almost no effort is spent understanding the unique problems that the vertical industry has. I can recall an email I got from a CIO in a national bank who was near panic back in the late 1990s. His CEO had met with Bill Gates and Gates had convinced that CEO that he needed to get off his mainframe and move to Windows NT servers which, at that time, were not even remotely capable of meeting the unique needs of that bank. Microsoft had yet to understand the unique needs of the finance industry in servers and it was still in the “one size fits all” mode about the market. And Gates was very persuasive.
Education, because it tends to be a very low-margin business, has been very slow to get the kind of focus other industries have had for some time. Thus, the solutions that have been provided to schools have been largely hand me downs from firms like Apple and Microsoft, both of which are tightly focused on margins and profit.
However, Google, which doesn’t care about either profit or margins (at least regarding hardware and software), moved into education and underpriced both of those vendors. The only segment where Chromebooks have been successful at scale is in education. But education is the seed corn for the rest of the market. People don’t like to retrain and kids were likely to carry their Chromebook experiences out of the market and into industry. But Google’s process was flawed because a cost-based focus doesn’t really focus on teachers either.
This gave Microsoft the will to focus on the segment and Google’s vulnerability. So, Microsoft resourced understanding education so it could compete, not by underpricing Google (which it couldn’t reasonably do), but by creating solutions with a high enough additional value to justify a higher price. Suddenly, we have a solution from Microsoft that is designed to make teachers’ jobs easier, and far better tools to educate kids.
Could the Same Focus Change Employee Productivity?
One of the things that makes education interesting is that the course material, at least in K-12, where this Microsoft effort is mostly focused, is relatively consistent. Yes, there are regional language and teaching material differences, but the same kind of issues regarding making similar material interesting and engaging result.
Microsoft created this set of education-based solutions by stepping back from pushing generic tools and rethinking what a teacher needed to get done. Then it modified the tools it had and created new ones to address the unique needs of the classroom.
What if that same effort were applied with employees? Certain classes (HR, finance, accounting, marketing, operations) are relatively generic company to company, but can be very different function to function. For instance, often, an HR person moving from one company to another should, but generally doesn’t, get a similar experience, and this lowers their productivity and much of their time is spent fighting the tools they are given rather than just getting the job done.
This all brings me back to the idea of lockdown. I do expect we will eventually come back to requiring this across industries, largely because of the spread of ransomware. But before that, this idea of turning PCs into far more focused business-oriented tools that are more tightly curated and controlled will have similar benefits to what kids will experience with this effort.
Wrapping Up: Preparing Adequately for the Future
This is as much about the importance of focus on the unique needs of any market as the tool set that resulted. This idea of focusing on the needs of the educator to create a set of tools that improves their productivity and effectiveness isn’t new. It is unusual for companies that create cross-industry tools, though, and it shouldn’t be.
One of the teachers at this event spoke about his frustration because he felt the tools he had weren’t preparing kids for their future; they were based on the world that existed years before when they were created. Technology firms like Microsoft are an instrumental part of building the future, and helping assure kids are ready for that future should have had a higher focus. This announcement helps correct that mistake. But I think it could go further. The same kind of effort applied to business could assure that our employees are just as ready for that future, because, often, they are equally tied to the tools and concepts of the past.
Rob Enderle is President and Principal Analyst of the Enderle Group, a forward-looking emerging technology advisory firm. With over 30 years’ experience in emerging technologies, he has provided regional and global companies with guidance in how to better target customer needs; create new business opportunities; anticipate technology changes; select vendors and products; and present their products in the best possible light. Rob covers the technology industry broadly. Before founding the Enderle Group, Rob was the Senior Research Fellow for Forrester Research and the Giga Information Group, and held senior positions at IBM and ROLM. Follow Rob on Twitter @enderle, on Facebook and on Google+